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Capitol Report

Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg. Photo: Shutterstock

Following is a listing of executive, legislative and electoral action for the week of April 1. Both houses of the General Assembly were in recess at press time. The Pennsylvania Senate and state House of Representatives were scheduled to return to work Monday.

Special Election



Democrats flipped a seat in the Pennsylvania Senate from red to blue April 2 as Pam Iovino, a former U.S. deputy secretary of veterans’ affairs, defeated Allegheny County Republican Chairman D. Raja in a special election to replace a GOP senator who had been elected to Congress.

Iovino, the Democrat, a U.S. Navy veteran, received 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Raja, the Republican, the co-founder and chairman of Computer Enterprises Inc., a Pittsburgh-based information technology service management company. The margin was more than 2,500 votes out of 64,000 cast.

The 37th senatorial district, which includes portions of Allegheny and Washington counties, has been politically competitive, with Democrats last winning the seat in 2014. President Donald Trump carried the district by six points in 2016. The special election was called to replace former Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Allegheny, who served three years in the state Senate and was elected to the U.S. Congress in November 2018.

Iovino, a resident of Mount Lebanon, was appointed to her veterans’ affairs post in 2004 by President George W. Bush. Her victory trims the Republican advantage in the upper house to 26-22, with two vacancies.

Criminal Justice



Gov. Tom Wolf, lauding the bipartisan approach to criminal justice reform measures, on April 3 urged the General Assembly to build on the recently passed Clean Slate Act—a first-in-the-nation measure aiming to remove roadblocks to jobs, housing, health care and education—and move on an upcoming bill that would overhaul probation and parole.

He said in an appearance with Democrats and Republicans who have worked on criminal justices that the Keystone State has the potential to be a national model for criminal justice reform in the states, observing that supervision has human and financial costs.

“Just like the clean slate bill, Pennsylvania can lead the nation with bold bipartisan reforms to probation and parole,” Wolf said. “We have seen too many cases where long-tail probation terms trap individuals in the criminal justice system, even if they are never convicted of another crime. This hurts their families, their communities and our economy.”

To continue leading the nation on criminal justice reform, Wolf said he wants to:

  • Pass and implement the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI 2, to address the high cost of incarceration in the state, to strengthen support for county probation programs, and to fix inadequate sentencing guidelines.
  • Reform the pretrial system to make certain that those accused of a crime have access to competent legal counsel and a reasonable bail system.
  • Reform the post-trial criminal justice system to ensure work toward rehabilitation of individuals and preparation to re-enter society, rather than creating further risks for recidivism.
  • Focus on probation reform to ensure the right individuals have the right level of supervision and technical probation violations do not mean an immediate return to incarceration.



Medical Marijuana



The Wolf administration on April 4 announced that approved doctors have issued more than 100,000 patient certifications to allow patients with serious medical conditions access to the state’s medical marijuana program.

“Realizing 100,000 patient certifications and seeing the first Phase II grower and processor operationalized is a testament to the hard work of the Department of Health, the many advocates for this program, and our General Assembly who passed this legislation nearly three years ago,” Wolf said. “It’s progress that is making a difference in the lives of many Pennsylvanians.”

At the same time, the state Department of Health approved the first Phase II medical marijuana grower/processor, FarmaceuticalRx LLC, located in Farrell, Pennsylvania, to begin operations, bringing the overall total number of operational grower/processors to 13.

More than 131,000 patients in Pennsylvania have registered to participate in the medical marijuana program, a Wolf administration statement said, and close to 102,000 have received their patient certification and are able to purchase medical marijuana at a dispensary. In addition to patients, more than 1,500 physicians have registered for the program, 1,099 of whom have been approved as practitioners.

Nuclear Energy



A bill to classify nuclear energy—which emits no carbon—as part of Pennsylvania’s alternative energy portfolio would greatly assist the state in meeting carbon emission reduction goals, a key backer said in announcing the measure’s introduction April 3.

Senate Bill 510, whose prime sponsor is Sen. Ryan P. Aument, R-Lancaster, would add nuclear energy to the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS) Act, which was created in 2004 to support the development of alternative energy sources in order to reduce carbon emissions and promote a cleaner environment.

Sponsors said passage of the bill into law would aid the nuclear industry, protect nearly 16,000 Pennsylvania jobs and curb significantly higher long-term energy costs.

“Nuclear energy is the most efficient, carbon-free producer in our system,” Aument said. “The loss of Pennsylvania’s nuclear industry will inevitably lead to increased costs for ratepayers, a less reliable and resilient electricity grid, and a loss of billions of dollars for the state’s economy.”

The state currently has five nuclear power plants, two of which have already announced that they will prematurely shut down—Three Mile Island in October 2019 and Beaver Valley in 2021. These premature shutdowns are part of a national trend and, based on independent analyses, the other three nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania are likely not far behind.

The shutdown process is irreversible, so the loss of the nuclear power plants now means that consumers would lose those benefits forever, Aument said.

Failing to preserve the nuclear energy industry would cost Pennsylvanians an estimated $4.6 billion annually, including $788 million in electricity cost increases to consumers and $2 billion in lost GDP, according to a statement from Aument.

Aument emphasized that the legislation would treat nuclear energy the same as every other zero-carbon emission energy source in Pennsylvania, including solar, wind and other alternative energy technologies.

Pennsylvania’s nuclear power plants currently generate 42 percent of the state’s electricity and provide 93 percent of the commonwealth’s zero-carbon electricity.

GI BILL

Major Gen. Tony Carrelli, Pennsylvania's adjutant general and head of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, on April 3 urged members of the General Assembly to act on a proposed PA GI Bill that would allow members of the Pennsylvania National Guard (PNG) to earn college benefits for their spouse and children by re-enlisting for an additional six-year term of service.

The measure, if passed, would be the first in the nation to tie service commitments to state-level education benefits for military families.

The benefits could be used at a Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency-approved educational institution, and at the tuition rate set by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

"Our families serve and sacrifice right alongside of our guardsmen and providing this educational opportunity for our families is one way to show them how grateful Pennsylvania is for their personal sacrifice," Carrelli said.

He also said that the move would improve state National Guard retention and readiness.